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Disability and sexuality

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Disability and sexuality

Disability and sexuality are strange bedfellows in terms of cinematic representation. The disabled suffer from one of the most bizarre binary oppositions on film: being seen in many films as either completely asexual or excessively sexual. There seems to be little middle ground availablefor the average filmmaker, who becomes trapped in the banalities of these traditional depictions and apparently unable to escape them.


The 'psycho' sex maniac is a staple character  in both  the horror genre and other classic Hollywood genres, such as the melodrama and film noir which have often exploited these cliched narratives. There are almost no examples of female sexual excess in relation to disability (aside from a few-depictions of either nymphomania or psychotic behaviour- roles that have on occasion been played by Bette Davis). One conclusion to draw from the apparent  lack  of such roles is that women are, to some filmmakers, nothing but deformed men, in the words of Aristotle. Women, by already being part of Western male culture's paradigm of the Other, seem to push the notion  of Otherness  too far  into  a dangerous area for film exploration. It is amazing to see how often disability, per se, is the root cause of the breakdown of strong relationships. Disability almost always trails 'consequences' in its wake, as we see luridly in Breaking the Waves (1996).


It is clear that the same argument could be mounted in terms of representations of gay, lesbian or black disabled people: few exist, let alone any which combine these attributes. Female, black or gay sexua lity is usually enough Otherness for a filmmaker to handle: adding disability is generally a step too far for both filmmaker s and society as a whole. This regrettable situation has lead to the most incredibly ignorant, facile and narrow interpretation of all human sexuality on film, let alone that of disabled people. Even when it is attempted, the filmmaker either settles for tokenism or lacks the courage to develop the topic beyond superficial gestures towards equality or diversity. One thinks here of The Sixth · Happiness_ (1997) or even We Don't Want To Talk About It  (1993).  One  of  the  few exceptions to this is Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan,  Supermasochist  (1997),  a  joyful  exploration of the pleasures of complete difference.

By far the most common  interpretation  of  disabled sexuality is rooted in a  normalising  ideology of  white, male, middle-class heterosexuality. This  ideology  may work in two ways: to reinforce the joy of being a 'normal' sexual male or to highlight the  dangers  of  straying  from this norm. Disability is often presented as the inevitable result of straying from 'normal' sexual behaviour, and indulging in adultery, promiscuity or other supposedly deviant sexual behaviour. Many disability films, despite their otherwise liberal attitude, cannot help but suggest the metaphysical 'cause' for  an impairment.  Most  filmmakers succumb to the temptation to explain why an impairment exists or to answer the question  'Why  me?'.  For  examples you can look at films as  diverse as Hilary  and Jackie (1998), Fists in the Pocket (1965),  On  Dangerous Ground (19S1) or Brimstone and Treacle (1982).

The 'logic' of such films is that  impairment  is  the  direct result of some prior moral deviancy. Conversely, some narratives use disability to support a 'normal'  view  of sexuality by having the disabled lack some element of  a normal sexuality even as they struggle to attain 'normality' . The result of these narratives is that the disabled, far from being shown as equal,  are  in  fact  displaced  even  further into the abnormal by not coming  up  to scratch. A film such  as My Left Foot (1989) is  a  good  example  of  this tendency. If a film had been made of a similar narrative, without the disability angle, sexuality would have played a key role, but, when disability is added, sexuality simply vanishes. The fantasy of 'normal' sexuality is consequently left unscathed and reinforced.